Felipe Rangel celebrates the “social phenomenon” of handmade masks

The Museum’s annual Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas street festival is fast approaching! And to get ready, we’ve been checking in with some of the beloved artisans that make our festival so vibrant, diverse, and meaningful. For years, Felipe Rangel has been sharing his colorful vejigantes with festival goers. Today we’re glad to present more about Felipe’s history in education,  maskmaking, and cultural exploration.

How did you get started making masks?

Well, first of all, I’m a retired school teacher. So when I taught 30-plus years ago in Brooklyn, I remember that my first classroom was about 17 kids. Most of them were Puerto Rican. A few others were from the Dominican Republic, Central America, and so forth. A lot of these kids come from a generation of Puerto Ricans who never knew anything about their culture because once you’re here, you learn a lot more about the culture of the United States. But it’s not so inclusive when it comes to the culture of the Puerto Ricans, to the culture of the Dominicans. So many Latino Americans, they tend to lose track of their culture and language and so forth. And I realized my role as a teacher was to teach them how to read and write, but how I did that was left to me. So I said to myself, these kids have no idea where they’re from, what the culture looks like. So I’m gonna give it to them. So I started with the culture of Puerto Rico because that’s where I’m from. But again, I respect the fact that the kids were also from the Dominican Republic and I said that they might have similar practices in that country that they want to explore. And so I decided to design the masks.

I used balloons. I started to show them how to use paper mache; we created the wheat paste. And then I said, let me take it back a step further.

So I started researching about bomba y plena, the music that is very tied to the masks, and the culture of the masks. I taught them a little bit of how to bomba y plena. Then I recruited parents, and they helped make the traditional costumes. We had a whole school presentation, and my principal was blown away. He did not expect that these kids could play bomba y plena, could dress up or put together these costumes. That whole presentation was outstanding. I mean, according to the principal, he said he had never seen something like that before. And the kids were in fifth grade.

And you decided to keep working on these?

After a couple of years of doing that, basically, I started doing it on my own. I thought I could take it to another level. Being more of an artist myself, I could learn how to practice and learn how to crack this in a more professional way. Nut believe me, it wasn’t what you see today. So a lot of these masks started as very rugged, very raw looking things. But after 30 years of doing it over and over and over again, I was able to perfect the cracks. But the learning itself of how to construct it came with practice.

I had to go to Ponce, back to the master artists, and learn from them. But I also educated myself. I began learning more of the tradition from Ponce, where it came from, how is it connected to Europe, to the Afro-Caribbean, the Afro-American culture. And it was a journey of rediscovering, to me, what it means to be Puerto Rican. As I was going back and reading about it, I was giving that information back to the kids giving that information to the kids. I encouraged them to go back to the books and read about Dominican culture, too – Carnival. And I taught a kid who was from Jamaica, and she went back to her culture and did a mask from Jamaica, representing her culture. So in a way I empowered the students, so that they became owners of their own knowledge.

So it sounds like there are a lot of similarities in the mask making of different Caribbean cultures?

Yes. I went to Louisiana, to the Mardi Gras Museum, trying to make connections between Puerto Rico’s Carnival and Mardi Gras. If you continue researching this, you can find similarities because they all started in Europe. It was brought into the new world by Columbus. And that’s how everybody got this concept of “carnival.” So Carnival is a very universal and connecting thing. And as you study this you learn about the practices of other people’s cultures. It’s amazing how all of them are connected.

And actually, at first, Carnival was a practice from the rich. It became more popular when the common people were not invited to these Carnival balls and they decided to start practicing their own. That’s why you go to New Orleans, you got the Cajun influence, you had the Creole influence. You even have Native Americans mixed with the Africans, and they made their own carnival traditions. So I saw a lot of similarities in terms of how carnivals are practiced in different places. But it is a social phenomenon that has layers and layers and different cultural entities involved. And you cannot say is a European thing only you or you cannot say either is an African thing only. It is done throughout the whole world. But it’s amazing how you get all these connections across connections. 

So walk me through how you make one of these masks.

You start with a very basic mold. Once you have that down, you pull out the negative, the empty space. You pull out a little bit of the paper mache, let it dry, continue with second phase, third phase…one phase, I will be practically trimming the edges, perfecting everything, just making eyebrows, making horns, or making teeth for the mouth. Before this batch right here, you’ll see how the teeth, and every top there was constructed individually.

I don’t make one at a time. What I do is I make the heads first – I make maybe 70, 80 heads. And then I take a break, I finish them up for one festival, take another group and I take them to another festival. So I keep my supply always high.

How do you choose what kinds of masks to make?

I have my own style. I prefer the rooster. I have done the horse and the dragon. But I’ve done all kinds. I also have the alligator. So somehow in Puerto Rico, we were introduced to the alligator. Now I use that as one of the examples. I’m a fisherman, I go out fishing with my uncle’s catching groupers. One time I caught one and as I’m pulling it in, a barracuda came right up and snaps up the half of the fish. I was so impressed by that kind of experience, that I started making a fish mask. So it’s all influenced by the experience of the artists that they put into the art.

What are the key takeaways you’ve learned on your artistic journey to becoming a master mask maker?

Out of all my experience of doing this, I receive the most pleasure transmitting this information to people. For example, I’m sharing information that I gathered throughout the years with you, and hopefully you will pass this information to others. My mission has always been the same – education. And to give back to people the knowledge they should have about themselves. Because if I learn my culture, well, believe me, I will appreciate other people’s culture much more. Because I have a base. Because I have a space.

The American culture has a lot to offer. But we don’t learn it well enough, we cannot compare it to other things. And that’s how we learn. I think, the more knowledge we get from one aspect of the culture, the more we’re able to jump into the other cultures I learned more about. I appreciate as a Puerto Rican, I know what I am. I can appreciate other people’s culture that same way. I think that unites us more than anything else.

 

We’re so grateful to Felipe for sitting down with us to share his thoughts! Make sure to visit Felipe at the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas festival on Sunday, June 16. The festival starts at noon and you can check in with Felipe all day to see him making one of his elaborate masks and explaining more about the process and mask-making culture. See you then!

This interview was conducted by Jake Rosenberg. Jake is a playwright, folklorist, producer, and founder of American Lore Theater. Discover more about him at www.metarosenberg.com.

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